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Attack of the Drones!

In case you missed it earlier this week, AI Chairman Francis Fukuyama has built a drone and has documented the process on his blog. Here’s his take on why he did it:

It is extremely easy to build a drone now that can do not just surveillance but can carry rather large payloads . . . I don’t have to spell out the implications of this.  I want to have my drone before the government makes them illegal.  The US has been fighting such low-tech enemies lately that we haven’t thought through the nature of a world in which lots of people have sophisticated drones, not just other countries but private individuals.

Frank is right. We haven’t thought through the nature of such a world. But there’s certainly an argument for drones that we hope Western governments consider before banning them outright. They are an invaluable aid to citizen journalists and can serve to increase accountability in both corporations and governments. As Gizmodo reported recently, a Texas man discovered via drone surveillance a stream of blood flowing from a local meat processing plant and into a river, leading to an investigation. And according to a Radio Free Europe profile, an Azerbaijani engineer is developing a drone designed for filmmakers and journalists, which bloggers have already used to document protests in Poland:


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Privacy concerns remain to be addressed, and some kind of regulation is probably inevitable. But we hope that Western governments committed to their citizens’ freedom don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater on this particular innovation.

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  • Michael

    Not to discount the security/privacy concerns, a *huge* problem with drones (private or government) is integrating them with the National Air Space. As they get bigger/fly higher, they pose a real threat to other air traffic – especially if we get droves of drones. The FAA has real concerns that we will see many, many mid-air collisions between drones and piloted air vehicles.

    There aren’t good solutions for enabling automated aircraft sense and avoid older aircraft that lack transponders. (Requiring the older aircraft to install transponders is an non-starter, at least the last time I looked at this problem.)

  • Jeremy, Alabama

    I was interested in this several years ago, and found even back then that you could download open-source drone software that can fly a plane from sourceforge.

    The technology has been available for a long time. I agree that integrating drones with piloted vehicles will not be easy, but literally anybody with a thousand bucks and some knowhow can fly a drone today.

  • Jim.

    Aren’t there already FAA regulations for flight plans and such, along with FCC regulations involving remote control aircraft?

    Whatever comes of this should be built using established law, instead of dumping some new monstrosity on us.

  • Michael

    Flight plans don’t map the exact, specific route you will follow from A to B. More importantly, wind, weather and other traffic will change your route and the timing of your route. Also, at present, there’s no way to coordinate all of the flight plans to make sure that nobody intersects.

    Bottom line: “sense and avoid” is an essential part of air traffic safety. Every pilot needs an ability to independently determine what’s flying around them. That gets tricky with drones.

  • John Alsina

    I recently looked into using a small RC airplane equipped with a video camera for publicity and residential real estate purposes. I discovered that I would have to go through an FAA licensing procedure that makes my little business venture a non-starter.

    The licensing procedure focuses not on aircraft safety, but on terrorism. Now, my RC aircraft’s payload is measured in ounces, and it couldn’t carry a large firecracker, let alone a bomb. Granted, it could be used to spy on my neighbors, or to guide a terrorist in an explosives-laden truck to a target within a half-mile of my location. But these capabilities are no different from (and vastly inferior to) existing large commercial systems for terrain mapping and for truck fleet management, and so far as I know, no FAA license is required to use them.

    I’m afraid this is one more example of government picking on little guys, which is safe and easy to do, while neglecting more serious problems. Meantime, another whole category of nice little innovative business opportunities is off the table.

  • Corlyss

    “Privacy concerns remain to be addressed,”

    I don’t see any reasonable privacy concerns. People have zero expectation of privacy when they are outside their homes or their cars. A drone’s no different from a cop on the beat. I have no patience with attorney’s trying to concoct new rights out of whole cloth.

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